Words have a power all their own. Words are the basis of all systems of belief and of all political structures. Words are the ultimate luxury. Words are everyone’s. We can, should and must use words as we wish. We should speak and write freely. We should always think about what we say.
The new absence is always the same
I read some words yesterday that brought tears to my eyes. These words were shared via Twitter by the excellent Stefan Stern. They chimed so perfectly with the thoughts percolating in my mind at that moment that I can only see it as another instance of Twitter’s gift for serendipity.
Yesterday, Friday 17 June 2016, the day after the murder of MP Jo Cox, Stern tweeted:
“The 1st day after a death the new absence is always the same. We should be careful of each other we should be kind while there is still time”
Gentle reader: if you are of a literary persuasion, it is likely that you are already a few steps ahead of where I was when I first read those words. When I complimented Mr Stern on the beauty of his turn of phrase, he informed me that these words come from Philip Larkin’s poem The Mower.
Larkin’s words here bear out Coleridge’s definition of poetry as “the best words in their best order.” For me, they express clearly and perfectly the thoughts towards which I was stumbling (and which I could not have hoped ever to express so well).
Faced with the seemingly endless wave of horrors that have poured out across the world over the past week, there has never been a better time to remember to be kind while there is still time.
This is one of those moments in history when things become polarised. Rarely do situations become as starkly binary (from a certain point of view) as they are in the war with ISIS, the 2016 US presidential election and the imminent EU referendum in the UK.
The past week has seen various forms of polarisation give rise to sickening violence and loss of life, be it the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the French police couple killed in Paris, or the behaviour of fans at Euro 2016. Early reports suggest that the murder of Jo Cox may have been politically motivated, but this has yet to be proven decisively.
A moment’s personal history. It might sound silly or slight, but the awakening of my interest in gay rights came with the publication of a comic called AARGH! in 1988. As a comics nerd, I was excited to read it as it brought together the absolute cream of comics talent at that time (Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Dave Sim, Bill Sienkiewicz and dozens more). But AARGH! had a purpose.
was an acronym for Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia. This collective was formed in protest at Section 28 of the Local Government Act – a piece of legislation intended to prevent the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities.*
Secction 28 actively sought to curtail freedom of speech with the aim of attacking a specific group within society.
The words and images in AARGH! opened my eyes to an issue about which I’d probably never even thought up to that point. It made me a lifelong proponent of gay rights. It also reinforced for me the need for free speech, always.
You DO get to be surprised
In such polarised times, we must always remember the power of words. But we must also preserve everyone’s right to use words as they wish. No matter how much we might disagree with what they say.
Yesterday, I saw a lot of social media shares for a Spectator article on the tragic loss of Jo Cox, entitled A Day of Infamy. In this piece, Alex Massie arguably makes a lot of similar points to what I’ve said above. But I take issue with the following passage:
“When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be
surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of
life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised
if someone takes you at your word.”
This is wrongheaded. How different is this logic from that which gave rise to Section 28 (e.g. By the above logic, Section 28 could be described thus: ’Don’t be surprised if children decide to become gay if a teacher dares to suggest it might be an acceptable lifestyle choice.’)?
We should speak and write freely. We should always think about what we say. Equally, we should be allowed to think about what we hear, and to make up our own minds.
As repellent as I find UKIP’s “breaking point” campaign, it should be permitted to exist. UKIP’s rhetoric here exposes exactly the beliefs that drive it, as Dan Snow’s sharing of @brendanjharkin’s work makes clear:
Humanity and beauty
We live in polarised times. There is so much that is sickening and wrong in this world. There is also still humanity and beauty. Perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve seen this week is Hugo Greenhalgh’s tweeted view from the vigil for those lost in Orlando, which took place in London’s Old Compton Street on Monday evening.
We are all of us human.
Words, used correctly, will help us through.
Be kind while there is still time.
* If you’ve not heard of Section 28 before, please read this Guardian article from when it was finally repealed in 2003 (yes, 2003!). And Wikipedia reminds us that none other than David Cameron attacked Tony Blair over his plans to repeal Section 28, back in 2000.
- A wee competition: I’m not going to tell you from whence the image at the top of this post is taken. But I will tell you in my next post (which I hope to publish on Saturday 25 June 2016). In the meantime, if you know the source of said image, please do get in touch. I would be frankly delighted to know if there’s anyone out there who knows it. But as always with the so-called competitions on this so-called blog, there will in all probability not be any so-called prizes!
- AARGH! cover art via Wikipedia.